Saturday, November 27, 2010

Delight in Assertions!

Luther's The Bondage of the Will has turned out to be a captivating read. One aspect of it which I find somewhat amazing is that it seems Luther speaks to the situation in the Church today no less than he did 500 years ago. In the section below Luther reprimands Erasmus for minimizing the importance of assertions or belief in objective statements of truth from God's Word. Erasmus' goal in downplaying the importance of these assertions seems to have been, to some degree, a desire for unity among Christians - a desire for unity between Luther and the pope. But ostensibly good ends (unity among Christians) do not justify evil means (compromising on truth). I found this reminder from Luther very timely as this lack of respect for right assertions, that is, right doctrine (orthodoxy), seems rampant within Evangelicalism today. As in Luther's day, minimizing the importance of right doctrine today is often done in the name of unity.
To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all. (Now, lest we be misled by words, let me say here that by 'assertion' I mean staunchly holding your ground, stating your position, confessing it, defending it and persevering in it unvanquished. I do not think that the term has any other meaning, either in classical authors or in present-day usage. And I am talking about the assertion of what has been delivered to us from above in the Sacred Scriptures.) . . .

. . . Away, now, with Skeptics and Academics from the company of us Christians; let us have men who will assert, men twice as inflexible as very Stoics! Take the Apostle Paul - how often does he call for that 'full assurance' (Col. 2:2, 1 Thess. 1:5; Heb. 6:11, 10:22) which is, simply, an assertion of conscience, of the highest degree of certainty and conviction. In Rom. 10 he calls it 'confession' - 'with the mouth confession is made unto salvation' (v. 10). Christ says, 'Whosoever confesseth me before men, him will I confess before my Father' (Matt. 10:32). Peter commands us to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15). And what need is there of a multitude of proofs? Nothing is more familiar or characteristic among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity. . .

. . . The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions - surer and more certain than sense and life itself.

-Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good...

. . .for his steadfast love endures forever!
-Psalm 107:1

O my God,

Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,
my heart admires, adores, loves thee,
for my little vessel is as full as it can be,
and I would pour out all that fullness before thee in ceaseless flow.
When I think upon and converse with thee
ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up,
ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart,
crowding into every moment of happiness.
I bless thee for the soul thou hast created,
for adorning it, sanctifying it,
though it is fixed in barren soil;
for the body thou hast given me,
for preserving its strength and vigour,
for providing senses to enjoy delights,
for the ease and freedom of my limbs,
for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding;
for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,
for a full table and overflowing cup,
for appetite, taste, sweetness,
for social joys of relatives and friends,
for ability to serve others,
for a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,
for a mind to care for my fellow-men,
for opportunities of spreading happiness around,
for loved ones in the joys of heaven,
for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly.
I love thee above the powers of language to express,
for what thou art to thy creatures.
Increase my love, O my God, through time and eternity.

- From: The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions

Monday, November 22, 2010

Who Maketh Thee to Differ?

Yesterday I was blessed by a great time of fellowship and Bible study, the topic of which was the sin of pride. This is a sin which vexes me and I was surprised by the "divine appointment" of walking unexpecting into this Bible study. I saw it as a "divine appointment" because I have felt particularly convicted of this sin this week and I had just asked a brother pray for me earlier that day that God would humble me. Asking for humbling from God is not something that I take lightly at all and it is actually a prayer that causes me to fear. A brother once prayed for me that I would be humbled a few years ago, without my asking, and the Lord did humble me, and it was painful - a necessary and painful blessing. But that is not really the topic I want to write about now.

As we were talking about pride yesterday one portion of Scripture which came up was the beginning of 1st Corinthians chapter 4. The context of this passage seems to me primarily to be Paul's concerns about the divisions in the Corinthian church and the prideful sects that had arisen, saying things like "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos (3:4)." Paul points out that he and Apollos were nothing but servants who "planted" and "watered," and that "God gave the growth (3:5, 6)." Paul then concludes that, "neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (3:7)." Paul then seems to diverge briefly in verses 11-20 but then comes back to writing about the sects that had arisen. In verses 21-23 he writes, "So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's." The thing that caught my eye in these verses was Paul's mention of boasting. I think the idea of boasting is very important for understanding the nature of God's grace and the salvation of sinners. Paul uses a word translated as "boast" or "boasting" at least 37 times in his letters in the ESV. Often he speaks of boasting as it is related to our salvation which is by grace alone in Christ alone. In communicating the kind of salvation which sinners have in Christ, Paul writes that it is a kind of salvation, "so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:9)." We can offer nothing for the procurement of salvation, it is only a free gift from a merciful and just God, therefore we have nothing in ourselves of which to boast. And the salvation which God freely makes available by His grace was purchased with an infinite price, the shed blood of the spotless Lamb of God and King of the Universe, Jesus Christ.

With all of these things in mind, last night during this Bible study I read 1st Corinthians 4:7, "For who makes you to differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" First of all I must point out that I was reading an NKJV last night as my trusty ESV is currently MIA. So perhaps the reason this verse, which I've read many times, stood out to me so profoundly was that I read it in a version I'm not used to reading. And with further research on this verse today I see that there is a lot of variation in the way it's translated in different versions. The line which stood out particularly to me was, "For who makes you to differ from another?" Had I been reading my ESV I would have read, "For who sees anything different in you?" Without my ESV I've also been using my NLT a lot lately which has, "For what gives you the right to make such a judgment?" The NIV is surprisingly close to the NKJV with "For who makes you different from anyone else."

But it was the NKJV which struck me last night so I'll focus on that translation. Once again 1 Corinthians 4:7, "For who makes you to differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" When Paul asks that question in the last part of the verse, "why do you boast as if you had not received it?" I think the same thought could be expressed positively as, "why do you boast as if you had whatever you're boasting of as an inherent quality or possession in yourself." It is clear that Paul is saying that whatever the Corinthians have, that it is a gift from God and therefore something they have no right to boast about. The second part of this verse helps to clarify the first part. Paul asks, "for who makes you to differ from another?" Paul obviously asks this question with various blessings a person might possess in mind. I think this question, "who makes you to differ from another?" is applicable to every gift we have from God whether it be some "innate" ability in areas such as academics or sports or more particular spiritual gifts like healing, prophecy or tongues (1 Cor. 12:9-10). But above our "natural" abilities and spiritual gifts is the gift of salvation in Christ itself.

It is this gift of salvation which I first thought of when I read, "who makes you to differ?" I thought of this because about five years ago when I vehemently claimed the label "Arminian" for myself, I asked a friend this very question as I wrestled with what I saw as the inconsistency of Arminianism with salvation by grace alone. I asked my friend, a man whom I respect greatly to this day and who remains an Arminian, a question very similar to the one Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 4:7. We were talking about "prevenient" grace and salvation and I asked him, if I and another man both heard the gospel preached and both received the grace to either decide to follow Christ or to deny him, what was it in me that caused me to follow Christ while the other man rejected Him? I was asking my friend, what made us to differ? To me this question, which I think is inevitable in the Arminian system, is a significant problem. It seems to me that if this question can even be asked it must imply that there was something better in those who in the end choose Christ even if they were brought to that point of decision by God's grace. They must be smarter or holier or luckier but the thought of any of these things being a cause of salvation must be rejected in light of Paul's rejection of boasting in ourselves concerning our salvation. If I chose Christ, if I "differed," because I was smarter or holier or luckier then I have something to boast of in myself and I have my own self to thank for my salvation. But boasting is excluded. And it is obvious what the answer is to Paul's question, "who makes you to differ from another?" The answer is that God by His grace makes you to differ. The answer to Paul's rhetorical question, "what do you have that you did not receive?" is "nothing."

So it was surprising to me to see Paul asking in Scripture the very question I had posed years ago and years prior to my rejection of Arminianism or a least what passes for Arminianism today. My friend didn't have any answer for my question, by the way, and if I remember right he basically said that it was a question that shouldn't be asked. Maybe he is right but at least for the present I have come to different conclusions. Whenever I think I see something in Scripture which I hadn't seen before I always like to check and see if others have seen the same thing. I think this is especially important in a verse like 1st Corinthians 4:7 where there is a lot of variation in the way it is translated. So as usual I went to my favorite Bible commentator, John Calvin, to see what he had to say. What I found did not disappoint. In regards to the words. "to differ," or in Calvin's version, "to distinguish," the reformer wrote:
To distinguish here means to render eminent. Augustine, however, does not ineptly make frequent use of this declaration for maintaining, in opposition to the Pelagians, that whatever there is of excellence in mankind, is not implanted in him by nature, so that it could be ascribed either to nature or to descent; and farther, that it is not acquired by free will, so as to bring God under obligation, but flows from his pure and undeserved mercy. For there can be no doubt that Paul here contrasts the grace of God with the merit or worthiness of men.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

New Books! #3

4th year of medical school is somewhat more laid-back than the first three years so I'm planning on getting some good reading in before the start of internship in June. I'm excited to get started on the two most recent titles I picked up:

I'm already about halfway through J.I. Packer's and O.R. Johnston's magisterial introduction to Luther's The Bondage of the Will. This book would have been worth purchasing for the introduction alone. In this introduction I recognize the same passion for truth that I saw in J.I. Packer's In My Place Condemned He Stood. Especially interesting has been reading about the great intellectual humanist Erasmus and his complicated relationship to Luther. One of the most powerful lines I've read in the introduction was penned by Erasmus when Luther went missing after his appearance at the Diet of Worms before Emperor Charles V. Erasmus wrote in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, concerning Luther, "It's all up with that spark of gospel love, that tiny star of gospel light." Packer and Johnston, who I believe to be worthy interpreters, understand Erasmus to be showing genuine regret about what seemed to him to be imminent - the burning of Luther.

I also bought a copy of Pascal's Pensées, a classic I've long wanted to check out. Pensées should give me a good diversion from all the Reformed stuff I've been reading lately.

Monday, November 15, 2010

George MacDonald: Doubt

. . . but some doubted.
- Matthew 28:17b
Thou doubtest because thou lovest the truth. Some would willingly believe life but a phantasm, if only it might for ever afford them a world of pleasant dreams: thou art not of such! Be content for a while not to know surely. The hour will come, and that ere long, when, being true, thou shalt behold the very truth, and doubt will be forever dead. Scarce, then, wilt thou be able to recall the features of the phantom. Thou wilt then know that which thou canst not now dream. Thou hast not yet looked the Truth in the face, hast as yet at best but seen him through a cloud. That which thou seest not, and never didst see save in a glass darkly - that which, indeed, never can be known save by its innate splendour shining straight into pure eyes - that thou canst not but doubt, and art blameless in doubting until thou seest it face to face, when thou wilt no longer be able to doubt it. But to him who has once seen even a shadow only of the truth, and, even but hoping he has seen it when it is present no longer, tries to obey it - to him the real vision, the Truth himself, will come, and depart no more, but abide with him for ever.

-George MacDonald from his novel Lilith

Thursday, November 11, 2010

There may I though vile as he

In honor of the thief and to the infinitely greater honor of Christ the Lord.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chrysostom: On the basis of faith alone

Let us see, however, whether the brigand gave evidence of effort and upright deeds and a good yield. Far from his being able to claim even this, he made his way into paradise before the apostles with a mere word, on the basis of faith alone, the intention being for you to learn that it was not so much a case of his sound values prevailing as the Lord's lovingkindness being completely responsible.
What, in fact, did the brigand say? What did he do? Did he fast? Did he weep? Did he tear his garments? Did he display repentance in good time? Not at all: on the cross itself after his utterance he won salvation. Note the rapidity: from cross to heaven, from condemnation to salvation. What were those wonderful words, then? What great power did they have that they brought him such marvelous good things? "Remember me in your kingdom." What sort of word is that? He asked to receive good things, he showed no concern for them in action; but the one who knew his heart paid attention not to the words but to the attitude of mind.
-John Chrysostom, who lived from 347 - 407AD and was Archbishop of Constantinople from his Sermon 7 on Genesis, in St. John Chrysostom, Eight Sermons on the Book of Genesis

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Calvin: Salvation by free grace

What follows is a quote from Calvin's commentary on Luke 23:42-43, "Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'" It is longer than most quotes I post but I think it is an excellent analysis of the passage by Calvin. The Reformer expands here on the Thief's salvation through faith alone.

Though Christ had not yet made a public triumph over death, still he displays the efficacy and fruit of his death in the midst of his humiliation. And in this way he shows that he never was deprived of the power of his kingdom; for nothing more lofty or magnificent belongs to a divine King, than to restore life to the dead. So then, Christ, although, struck by the hand of God, he appeared to be a man utterly abandoned, yet as he did not cease to be the Savior of the world, he was always endued with heavenly power for fulfilling his office. And, first, we ought to observe his inconceivable readiness in so kindly receiving the robber without delay, and promising to make him a partaker of a happy life. There is therefore no room to doubt that he is prepared to admit into his kingdom all, without exception, who shall apply to him. Hence we may conclude with certainty that we shall be saved, provided that he remember us; and it is impossible that he shall forget those who commit to him their salvation.

But if a robber found the entrance into heaven so easy, because, while he beheld on all sides ground for total despair, he relied on the grace of Christ; much more will Christ, who has now vanquished death, stretch out his hand to us from his throne, to admit us to be partakers of life. For since Christ has, “nailed to his cross the handwriting which was opposed to us, (Colossians 2:14,) and has destroyed death and Satan, and in his resurrection has triumphed over the prince of the world, (John 12:31,) it would be unreasonable to suppose that the passage from death to life will be more laborious and difficult to us than to the robber. Whoever then in dying shall commit to Christ, in true faith, the keeping of his soul, will not be long detained or allowed to languish in suspense; but Christ will meet his prayer with the same kindness which he exercised towards the robber. Away, then, with that detestable contrivance of the Sophists about retaining the punishment when the guilt is removed; for we see how Christ, in acquitting him from condemnation, frees him also from punishment. Nor is this inconsistent with the fact, that the robber nevertheless endures to the very last the punishment which had been pronounced upon him; for we must not here imagine any compensation which serves the purpose of satisfaction for appeasing the judgment of God, (as the Sophists dream,) but the Lord merely trains his elect by corporal punishments to displeasure and hatred of sin. Thus, when the robber has been brought by fatherly discipline to self-denial Christ receives him, as it were, into his bosom, and does not send him away to the fire of purgatory.

We ought likewise to observe by what keys the gate of heaven was opened to the robber; for neither papal confession nor satisfactions are here taken into account, but Christ is satisfied with repentance and faith, so as to receive him willingly when he comes to him. And this confirms more fully what I formerly suggested, that if any man disdain to abide by the footsteps of the robber, and to follow in his path, he deserves everlasting destruction, because by wicked pride he shuts against himself the gate of heaven. And, certainly, as Christ has given to all of us, in the person of the robber, a general pledge of obtaining forgiveness, so, on the other hand, he has bestowed on this wretched man such distinguished honor, in order that, laying aside our own glory, we may glory in nothing but the mercy of God alone. If each of us shall truly and seriously examine the subject, we shall find abundant reason to be ashamed of the prodigious mass of our crimes, so that we shall not be offended at having for our guide and leader a poor wretch, who obtained salvation by free grace.

-John Calvin, Commentaries